The Many Rebirths of a Man Who Never Lived
Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, famously tried to kill his detective off when he got tired of writing the stories. But the public demanded Sherlock back, and Conan Doyle needed the money so that he could write the historical fiction he found more important. So it turns out Sherlock didn’t die in that fall after all. The magical rebirth of Sherlock Holmes keeps happening in many genres, including, of course, the theater. No fictional character has been filmed more, and few have inspired more imitation, both direct and indirect. Indeed, the detective is perhaps the central character of our storytelling over the past century. We tell ourselves detective stories to think about how we solve our problems. Thinking about how we believe we solve our problems can teach us how we think about our heroes. It’s worth looking at how Sherlock Holmes has been reinterpreted to showcase new ideas about heroism. Let us skip over such distressing film adaptations as those starring Robert Downey, Jr. and instead focus on the Fox network’s House, the Hugh Laurie vehicle that lasted eight seasons, and the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
House rewrites the consulting detective as a consulting physician; Watson becomes Wilson; the violin becomes the piano and an electric guitar; cocaine, Vicodin; the name “house” is of course synonymous with home, which is close to the British pronunciation of “Holmes,” which drops the “l.” We learn a few things from this adaptation. First, House reminds us of our cultural confidence in doctors and in science. The detective figure arises in the nineteenth century as Britain and American adapt to an economy where professional knowledge represents, for example, parents’ biggest hopes for their children. Medical knowledge has become a knowledge that we trust far more than people did in Doyle’s day, when doctors were already growing in prestige. But House also capitalizes on an intellectual trend of the early 2000s in a way that separates him from the original Sherlock Holmes. In the stories, Holmes often retreats into a smoky haze and thinks through the case by himself. House, on the other hand, cannot think without his team. About the time that the show came out, the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was arguing that the key to Abraham Lincoln’s leadership was the team of rivals, the people off whom he bounced ideas. In other words, one way that House rewrites Sherlock Holmes reflects how the early 21st century thought good management worked. Sherlock is malleable.
More recently, the Sherlock on everyone’s mind is Benedict Cumberbatch’s consulting detective. He is technologically sophisticated and socially. . .weird? awful? Perhaps the most interesting response to Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, however, has come from those who see him as potentially autistic. I don’t want to claim that Sherlock accurately represents autism but instead that the show demonstrates a dream of what the science journalist Stuart Silberman calls a different “neurotribe,” a mind that approaches the world in its own way. Sherlock is, most of all, extraordinary at processing information, an apt hero in a world where one of our most pressing concerns is navigating the data overload. In Conan Doyle’s texts, Sherlock Holmes’s extraordinary knowledge of London indicated his sophistication and civilization—an intricate knowledge of what was then the most powerful city in the world was a signal that Holmes knew all there was to know about everything that’s really worth knowing. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has the equivalent of Google maps in his head. He thinks like a computer. He’s even better at processing information than the literary original. The opening scene of the series features not Sherlock but his text messages, perhaps a symbol of the purity of his intellect and rationality.
In that, Sherlock remains true to the spirit of the literary original. Though Sherlock Holmes had great physical prowess in the Conan Doyle stories—therefore justifying, at least a little, those regrettable Robert Downey, Jr. movies—the original consulting detective remains, above all, a statement of faith in the power of the intellect. And his numerous rebirths continue to teach us about how we think what kinds of thinking we value.
Charles T. Hazelrigg Associate Professor of English
John Kinkade is Charles T. Hazelrigg Associate Professor of English. In 2010, he was named a Centre Scholar. Prior to joining Centre’s faculty in 2006, he taught at the Texas Military Institute, the University of Texas at Austin, and in the Naples, Fla., community schools.
He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Centre College with degrees in English and government, and earned a master’s and Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Kinkade will lead a pre-performance discussion on the variations of Sherlock on March 4, 2016 at 7:00 PM in the Norton Center Grand Foyer. Tickets for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are still available. More info is available here.